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Burnout: The slow-burning, insidious enemy

The well-being wake-up call telling me to slow down before I hit the wall

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Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled to switch off.

Since I left university, two-day weekends of relaxation, rest and energising play have been few and far between. In 2019 in particular, I’d get up far too early on Sunday mornings, with a journal long on to-dos, and short on fun or decompressing activities. This would be the time in the week when my mind and body would try telling me at its loudest that I needed to stop – having built up a relentless habit of working at weekends.

My first job after graduating involved working six days per week. But even when I broke into the nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday world of salaried employment, I still liked to train at the gym for long hours on Saturdays and Sundays.

My then-girlfriend couldn’t understand it and, rightly, resented that I couldn’t hide that I felt time spent with her was keeping me from things like that, even at weekends. I’ve lost several relationships thus far due to my inability to switch off and relax properly.

Being present during rest and play is equally as important as being engaged at work.

Photo by Alejandro Escamilla on Unsplash

At weekends I would always carry my backpack with me, which would be heavy with my laptop, gym gear, journal, the latest self-help book I was reading and those all-important smartphone chargers.

My laptop even came with me to a friend’s wedding in Malta – where I couldn’t resist checking my work emails regularly during the trip spent in the paradise of Gozo.

Gozo, Malta

My always-on working mentality was most clearly revealed through my ‘perfect’ Saturday routine. I would begin the day with high-intensity interval training (HIIT), boxing training, spinning (or some combination of these!). Then I’d utilise the released happy endorphins by putting them into working on passion projects for a few hours. By early evening it would be time for my weekly highlight of a public-speaking class with some socialising afterwards. Some weeks I would have arranged a date; not only did this capitalise on this being the point in the week when I experienced my peak mood, but it assuaged any feelings I had of loneliness or emptiness for a few more hours.

Public speaking in the National Theatre, London

This routine ticked all my boxes for many months, as it combined all of my loves and passions:

  • public speaking (particularly improvised speeches);
  • socialising with like-minded people with whom I had shared interests;
  • exercise that was intense and challenging, but enjoyable nevertheless;
  • and, above all, being productive; i.e. ‘getting stuff done’.

In hindsight, I was throwing myself into busyness for the sake of it; subconsciously, I was trying to distract myself, and avoid facing and confronting the real issues within me.

Despite a few years of suffering from absentmindedness and blank, forgetful moments when asked what I’ve been up to, I did not realise I’d burnt myself out until a specific moment in mid-December 2019.

Photo by Hugo Jehanne on Unsplash

The morning before my revelation, I’d awoken to my 5am alarm and got up, then immediately felt a strong urge to get straight back into bed and sleep for a few more hours. For me, having been an ardent advocate of the 5am alarm for many years, this was a very rare step.

The next morning, despite getting my seven hours’ sleep, my body and mind were telling me to go the long way to the next Tube station, to stop off at the playground and jump on the swings for a while, and to stop off for a proper breakfast at a hotel near me. In hindsight, my impulses were trying to delay me from reaching the office.

On reaching my shared working space in central London later that morning – full of breakfast and caffeine – I’d booted up my laptop and sat down to write a communications plan for a client, but I knew instantly something was wrong. On a normal day, I could draft one of these standing on my head, but I could barely type a sentence that morning. I was looking at the screen of the laptop, the page of my journal and around the office when it dawned on me that I was overcome with stress, anxiety and dullness in my brain. I couldn’t do a thing – I could barely send a simple email or write a short social media post – and, more importantly, I didn’t want to.

My ‘office’ in London’s West End

I’d pushed myself far too far, for much too long. The well was dry. There was no water to pour from, the cup was empty.

“[My] longevity comes from my lifestyle. That has bought me these months and these years and these fights. Without that lifestyle, even as good as I think I might have been, it would have shortened my career. So because of my lifestyle, the candle is burning twice instead of burning once.”

Boxing’s oldest world champion, Bernard Hopkins

I’d thrown the whole candlestick into the fireplace too many times. This was the point at which I realised that the way I was working, in fact, wasn’t working.

I spent the next five days or so doing as little as possible, but I still accepted three media appearance requests albeit regretfully. The ability to prioritise your own health and well-being is often the ability to simply to say no.

Media requests taken reluctantly barely a week after my burnout

One month before my burnout, I booked a one-way flight to Africa. However, in the days leading up to the flight, I began asking myself one question: how have I got to this point where I have decided that taking myself away to a vast, unfamiliar continent with no return flight booked was a sensible, logical and rational thing to do in my life?

How had it come to this?

The signs I’ve ignored include the relationships I’ve walked away from when I felt they were contradicting my ambitious goals and my flawed means of trying to achieve them. I’d glossed over my forgetfulness and absentmindedness, which had occurred over a long period.

Anxiety and stress had built up slowly to a point where I’d hardly realised its entry as a regular fixture in my life. I’d overlooked my Sunday fatigue and general listlessness throughout the week. My increasing isolation since becoming self-employed had been chalked up as a necessary sacrifice. I’d noticed, but disregarded, how disengaged I’d become when I was with people too. It took near strangers and those in my office to tell me frankly that I was ‘always’ working, and looked exhausted and run down.

I’ve slowly come to realise that booking my African adventure was a clear act of desperation to escape.

Reading Stoic philosopher Seneca in east Africa has offered me two fitting reflections on the dwindling, finite nature of our most precious resource: time.

Life is long if you know how to use it.”

Our lives need not be short if we don’t waste them aimlessly, but instead focus on what intellectually stimulates and emotionally motivates us.

There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn…It takes the whole of life to learn how to live.”

By the same token, the short duration of life should not be an excuse to hurry and busy ourselves to produce for its own sake, but a reason for slowing down and savouring the special moments and making the most of things while they exist.

Learning how to live – how to switch off and enjoy life in health and happiness – can take an entire lifetime, but it is an awesome, sublime endeavor that’s worthy of our time.

Zanzibar
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